While we're always on the lookout for the hot new thing, we love to rediscover an oldie but goodie. We were a bit worried about revisiting Marrakesh in Costa Mesa since neither of us had been there for at least 12 years. We're happy to report that our fears were unfounded.
Stepping off busy Newport Boulevard into this dark, casbah-like atmosphere, we were immediately put in the mood for a unique dining experience. The large space is broken up into smaller dining areas with tent-like draperies, each with low brocade-upholstered banquettes lined with pillows. Inlaid wood tables, lantern-like fixtures, Moroccan artifacts and candlelight help set the mood.
The menu features seven pre-set dinners including one vegetarian, but an a la carte menu will be provided on request. Each set dinner includes: soup, a quartet of salads, bread, bastilla, one or two entrées, baklava and mint tea. We opted to order a la carte.
The meal begins with a hand-washing ritual. A large metalware bowl is set on the table and you are instructed to place your hands above it. The server pours warm rosewater from a large goose-necked pitcher over your hands and then presents you with a towel for drying. Another towel serves as a very large napkin because, traditionally, Moroccan food is eaten with the hands. (Utensils are available for the timid.)
The soup is lentil vegetable purée with chickpeas, served in a bowl with handles so you can drink it. The tasty soup is delicate but richly flavored. Fresh lemon wedges are provided and they do add a nice perk.
The next course is a small platter of four different salads, and each was very good. They are meant to be scooped up with anise-flavored bread. Eggplant and tomato purée is seasoned with cumin, garlic, lemon and cilantro, all in perfect balance. The cooked carrot salad was slightly sweet and freshened with lemon. There was potato salad in light vinaigrette and a cooling, crunchy cucumber salad. We opted for forks here rather than bread or this course would have turned into our whole meal.
Bastilla is everyone's favorite Moroccan dish: filo dough wrapped around a filling of ground almonds, a thickened egg sauce and bits of chicken. The pie is dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The Marrakesh version is sweeter than most and is more like an almond-filled pastry than a chicken pie. The chicken was hard to find, although the pie was crispy and appetizing.
Chicken breast with preserved lemon and olives was a fine example of this classic tajine. The sauce was particularly noteworthy with its balance of herbs and spices in a light, greaseless broth. The mélange of lemon, parsley, cilantro, garlic, onions, cumin, paprika, ginger and saffron is one of the most interesting and memorable sauces in world cuisine.
The duck with prunes also evidenced the deft hand of chef Latifa Bakiri, with another complex, slightly sweet, deeply flavored sauce. Honey, hints of ginger, cinnamon, cilantro and turmeric contributed to this delicious sauce.
Somewhat disappointing were the grilled quails served on buttery rice. The birds were slightly chewy and the skin was soft. In this case, the spices didn't assert themselves.
Marrakesh's excellent version of baklava (a honey walnut pastry) is less sweet and more delicate than most, with a pastry that is not drowning in honey. We much prefer it this way.
A word about the entertainment: No Moroccan restaurant would be complete without its belly dancer, and Marrakesh is no exception. Much to our delight, there was only one. She was very adept and enviously limber, and the performance was not overdone.
The dancing, music and partitioned spaces make this a fun spot for parties. Still, the emphasis is on the food and it is definitely worth a visit or revisit. As an extra bonus, the feasts are very reasonably priced.
•WHAT: Marrakesh (949) 645-8384 http://www.marrakeshdining.com
•WHERE: 1976 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa
•WHEN: Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday: 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 5 to 11 p.m.
Appetizers: $4 to $7.75
Entrées:$13.50 to $15.95
Feasts: $23.95 to $34.95
Bottles: $25 to $110
Moroccan wine: $29 by the bottle
By the glass: $6.50 and up
Corkage Fee: $15